Community inclusion and access is within everyone’s ability

A just and fair society allows every individual to live their best life. But stumbling blocks on the road to accessibility and inclusion are everywhere. While true equity is a continuous journey of improvement, there are many ways to gear-up and start making meaningful progress.

In this article, we identify eight steps to get you on your way.

  1. Build community education
  2. Use inclusive language
  3. Make physical spaces accessible
  4. Accommodate non-physical needs
  5. Create safe and accessible transport options
  6. Ensure equal access to information
  7. Make support available if needed
  8. Create common goal partnerships

But first, let’s examine the importance of building fairer societies and the impact it has on the lives of so many Australians. This article focuses on disability, but many of the steps also apply to other marginalising factors, including culture, age, gender and sexuality.

In the foreground is a green-sleeved arm. Their hand is on the controller of a motorised wheelchair. They are heading towards the open door of a tram where another person in a wheelchair is exiting.

Accessibility and inclusion are not interchangeable

The internet puts the world at our fingertips. But without captions or screen reader access, a large portion of society misses out. Without accessibility, inclusion falls flat. It also works the other way. Your office could have ramp access for wheelchair users, but if your reception staff are rude and disrespectful, that customer won’t feel welcome. Accessibility and inclusion support each other in creating equity.

What is accessibility?

When something is accessible, it’s easy to understand, reach, enter, communicate with or use. At its best, accessibility is built into the design of products, devices, services, vehicles and environments. It removes barriers so every individual has equal opportunities regardless of ability.

Examples of accessibility include:

  • braille or audio options for people who are blind or vision impaired
  • quiet, low-light spaces for people with sensory differences
  • lower door handles, PIN or pass entry panels, EFTPOS machines and service counters that wheelchair users can reach
  • captions on videos or sign language at live events for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • seating options that accommodate a wheelchair or other mobility device without compromising the user’s experience
  • information offered in an easy-to-read format for people with lower literacy.

Keeping accessibility front of mind ensures more people have dignified access to resources and opportunities.

A man manoeuvres a motorised buggy to exit a tram.

What is inclusion?

A person who feels included in a group feels safe, valued and welcome. They feel seen and appreciated as an individual. Inclusive policies and practices are important to promote diversity and build social cohesion, ensuring inclusion goes beyond lip service.

Examples of inclusion in practice are:

  • using inclusive language that respects individual preferences, such as person-first or identity-first language
  • flexible work arrangements for people with care responsibilities
  • building workforces with a breadth of ages, genders, abilities and cultures
  • acknowledging or celebrating holidays, customs and cultures outside the mainstream
  • accommodating individual sensory needs in workplaces and classrooms
  • understanding and acknowledging intersectionality, where different aspects of a person’s identity contribute to their unique experience of discrimination and marginalisation.

Accessibility and inclusion build better communities

With one in five Australians living with disability, the need for improved access and inclusion affects a significant proportion of society.

As well as assisting people with disability, accessibility and inclusion make life fairer for older people, parents with infants and young children, and people with temporary illness or injury.

It considers people with lower literacy and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

It takes into account those with cognitive and sensory difference.

When we work to create more inclusive and accessible schools, workplaces, businesses, transport and public spaces, we weave rich and interesting diversity into our world.

Promote freedom, independence and spontaneity

As a wheelchair user, Brian is used to the frustration triggered by inaccessible and unwelcome spaces.

He recalls being turned away by the owner of a discount store in his local shopping strip.

“She rushed out to stop me coming in and asked what I wanted so she could get it for me,” Brian says.

“I just wanted to browse the store, but I think she was worried the wheelchair would not fit down the shop aisles.”

Brian sits at a table in his wheelchair sharing his lived experience of disability with a group of people. He is wearing his signature bush hat.

Accessibility is a human right. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) aims “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”.

Australia was among the original signatories to the CRPD and also has these rights embedded in its federal Disability Discrimination Act. The act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone with disability wanting to access:

  • the workplace
  • every level of education
  • public places such as libraries, churches and hospitals
  • shops and restaurants
  • accommodation
  • sports and clubs
  • government programs.

Federal and state laws also compel organisations to provide reasonable adjustments so people with disability have fair access to premises, events and information.

According to Travellers Aid CEO Elias Lebbos, improving accessibility and inclusion is important not just because it’s the law, but because it creates a sense of welcome and belonging for all.

“It ensures every individual can enjoy the freedom, independence and spontaneity to make the most of their community in a dignified way and on their own terms,” Elias says.

Travellers Aid CEO Elias Lebbos with staff member Arpana. They are smiling at the camera.

Inclusion, accessibility and universal design

Products, services and environments created through universal design are usable, accessible and inclusive. The Centre for Universal Design Australia describes it as a design thinking process with the goal of creating an inclusive society. “Inclusive design” and “design for all” are common variations that work towards the same goal.

Although first coined in the 1980s in relation to architecture, universal design is a concept applicable across communities.

It’s a way of thinking about workplaces, learning environments, public spaces, residences, shops and business that puts diversity of ability, age, gender and culture at the start of the design process. Instead of adapting things down the track, universal design includes everyone’s needs from the beginning.

Thinking this way not only saves on costly alterations, it also sets the foundations for the type of society we want to live in.

What does an accessible and inclusive community look like?

Imagine a community where every individual has fair access, and where each person can be themselves without facing impatience or hostility. A community in which people can get where they need to be and enjoy environments on their terms, with respect and dignity.

This, says Metro Trains General Manager Corporate Responsibility, Jenny Odgers, is the vision behind efforts to build a more equitable society.

“Accessibility is at the forefront of the architecture of the community and promotes equity across all facets of an individual’s life, from education to economic inclusion,” Jenny says.

V/Line Accessibility Manager Louise Hockey agrees. She says that removing social, economic and physical barriers means all people can fully participate in all aspects of community life.

“It becomes a place where all community members feel welcomed, respected, valued, and have a true sense of belonging,” Louise says.

Jenny smiles at the camera. She has bobbed blonde hair and is wearing a black and white floral top.
Louise stands at a train platform and smiles at the camera. She has long dark hair and is wearing a dark blue puffer jacket.

Disability advocate Peta Hooke says that when an environment in not accessible, it means the planning and logistics make it seem easier to stay at home.

This includes plotting out whether she can access the destination with her wheelchair and if the public transport needed to get there has accessible platforms. Where the transport doesn’t link up, she must consider the extra time needed to reach her destination on time. And if the venue doesn’t have an accessible bathroom, it may affect how long she can stay.

“It means I can’t always go to the same places that other people can get to, and that is really limiting,” Peta says.

Peta is in a yellow dress. She sits in a motorised wheelchair in the middle of a Melbourne shopping arcade.

Look beyond physical need to improve access and inclusion

Even when communities prioritise accessibility in their planning and design, the focus often remains on physical disability. While things such as wheelchair ramps, tactile strips, hearing loops and braille signage are necessary and important to improve access and inclusion, there are other common disabling barriers.

These include complicated information that people from non-English speaking backgrounds or who have lower literacy can’t understand. Bright and noisy environments that are triggering for people with sensory differences. Shop staff who are unwelcoming or disrespectful to particular cultures or gender identities.

Fair societies also consider public attitudes and respectful, inclusive language.

They consider the different ways people communicate and process information. Formats such as Easy Read or Easy English empower people with lower literacy to absorb information in a way that suits them. It gives them confidence, agency and dignity, reducing their dependence on others.

The difference between help and support

Help and support are words often used interchangeably. While their differences are subtle, they can affect our attitudes and approach to accessibility and inclusion.

Helping is typically seen as being more passive; it is something the helper does for the recipient. Supporting is a more active and collaborative form of assistance.

By supporting rather than helping groups or individuals, we allow them the space to make their own decisions and be in control of their own lives. Supporting those who need and seek assistance avoids creating a power imbalance that can leave them feeling helpless.

“Some people find it really challenging to ask for assistance. Perhaps they’ve had negative experiences or maybe they find that asking for help reduces their sense of independence,” Travellers Aid CEO Elias Lebbos says.

Our accessibility and inclusion services are designed to empower people to access the support they need on their terms, when and where they need it.”

A Travellers Aid staff member sits chatting with a visitor who is seated in a motorised wheelchair. They are inside the Flinders St service hub.

Eight steps to building more accessible and inclusive communities

We’ve discussed why accessibility and inclusion matter to so many. Now you’re ready to plot your own path.

Our eight steps to a fairer society are best viewed as a loop rather than a destination. Each step builds on the one before to create valuable and sustainable improvements for your customers, service users and the wider community.

When you reach the end, acknowledge your progress, take stock of what went well and seek areas for improvement. Then step out with confidence on your next lap.

Step 1: Build community education

Awareness and understanding provide a flying start. When people understand why accessibility and inclusion are important to ensure people live life on their terms, it sparks the “why” needed to create momentum.

Workplaces and schools are ideal places to introduce and normalise access and inclusion. There, children and adults not only see the difference it makes in the everyday experience of their work and classroom colleagues, they also come to accept it as the way things should be. They can then carry the concepts and practices through to other areas of their lives and communities.

Start by listening to the lived experience of people with disability. Disability advocacy is on the rise, with advocates sharing their thoughts and experiences on social media. This is an easy, grassroots way to learn about the changes people want to see, the language they prefer, and why support is more welcome than help.

Some of these people are associated with advocacy organisations that have programs and resources to take you further in your learning. Try organisations such as People with Disability Australia, Inclusive Australia or VALID.

Travellers Aid provides a range of accessibility and inclusion training programs, including experiential disability awareness training, which can be customised for specific sectors.

A man in a motorised wheelchair is speaking with a person seated in a motorised buggy.

Step 2: Use inclusive language

The way we speak to and about people has an enormous impact on individual and community attitudes.

While the Australian disability community has preferred language for discussing and describing disability, recognise that individuals and specific communities have the ultimate right to describe themselves as they see fit.

This might be around preferred gender pronouns, person-first or identity-first language or references to culture.

Wherever possible, ask the group or individual you are working with what language they prefer and respect that choice.

For more general references to disability, it’s useful to have a set of inclusive language guidelines for your organisation. This ensures everyone knows to use the respectful, dignified language your customers or service users expect.

Step 3: Make physical spaces accessible

Keep access and inclusion front of mind when planning new buildings, public spaces and events. Think about the people who might wish to use the space or attend the event. What do they need for independent and dignified access? Consider how you can support them to engage on their terms, rather than forcing people to seek help or make do with a limited experience.

Apply accessibility and inclusion to your physical spaces by including things such as:

  • ramps or lifts for wheelchair access
  • handrails along stairs and inclines
  • doorways and corridors wide enough for wheelchairs and mobility scooters
  • smooth and even footpath surfaces
  • braille signage and tactile strips so people who are blind or vision impaired can navigate more easily
  • lower door handles or touch entry technology
  • street-level bathrooms with accessibility features
  • lower reception desks to prevent staff having to literally look down on visitors using wheelchairs or scooters
  • signage that uses clear text with high contrast
  • effective and appropriate lighting.

Make sure your event design and building suppliers know that accessibility is a priority or, better still, seek suppliers who share your values.

Step 4: Accommodate non-physical needs

Apart from those with physical access needs, who else is missing out? Consider the needs of people with sensory and cognitive differences. Does your business play loud background music or have hard spaces that create a lot of noise? This not only makes it difficult for people to hear, but can trigger sensory overwhelm for some. Are there quiet spaces available to do business or in which to retreat?

More events and public spaces are now offering sensory hubs and chill-out areas. This lets people get out and about with confidence, knowing there will be a safe and understanding area where they can regulate and recover.

A Travellers Aid staff member hands a brochure to a visitor. Beside them is a banner displaying the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program offers a discreet way for people to show they might need some extra support. Businesses and charities that sign up to the global network gain resources and training to better support people who may need assistance, understanding or more time. By registering to display the symbol, events and organisations let people know they are safe disclosing that they have a temporary, situational or permanent hidden disability.

Travellers Aid is part of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower network and sells the badges and lanyards at its Southern Cross and Flinders Street station support hubs. These hubs also offer quiet spaces to relax and regroup away from the hustle and bustle of the main areas.

Step 5: Create safe and accessible transport options

A dependable and well-connected public transport system is at the heart of any accessible and inclusive city. When people can rely on regular, safe public transport, they can leave the car at home more often and connect confidently with their community.

Melbourne rates among the world’s most accessible cities, but work remains to improve transport equity.

V/Line, Metro, Kinetic and Yarra Trams are among the providers working hard to build an accessible and inclusive public transport system. Each has detailed accessibility action plans, informed by feedback from passenger and stakeholder accessibility reference groups. Staff disability awareness training and membership of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program also help them better serve their customers.

Working in partnerships to solve problems and share information for the benefit of all public transport users is essential to effective service delivery across Melbourne’s networks.

Step 6: Ensure equal access to information

Lauren is a digital accessibility consultant working with Travellers Aid to improve its website’s accessibility. She says equal access to information through a variety of formats empowers people to independently find what they are looking for.

“It also increases people’s autonomy and confidence knowing they have choice about how they access the services they need,” Lauren says.

Lauren sits at her desk with her hands on a laptop keyboard.

Improving access to information includes:

  • setting up digital content to be accessible by screen reader technology
  • ensuring colour combinations make content easy to read
  • providing captions on video content for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • coding web content so visitors can adjust the font size to suit their needs
  • providing documents in Easy Read or Easy English formats for people with lower literacy
  • using universally recognised symbols so people know where to find support if needed.

One such symbol is the internationally recognised Communication Access Symbol. Businesses and organisations displaying this symbol have undergone training to better communicate with all customers or service users, including those with communication difficulties. It is another way of empowering people to have dignified access to their community on their terms.

Step 7: Make support available if needed

Don’t assume people with disability want or need your help. The better approach is to create an environment that empowers people to get what they need with dignity and independence. That’s the difference between help and support.

Years before working with Travellers Aid, Lauren sometimes tapped into its connection services as she passed through Southern Cross Station from regional Victoria. If she didn’t feel up to navigating the busy platforms and concourse with her white cane, Lauren would hitch a buggy ride with Travellers Aid. Other times she felt like stretching her legs after the long train trip and preferred to make her own way. In both situations, the choice was hers.

Of course, if you see someone struggling or if someone asks for help, offer assistance. Just be sure to ask how you can support them appropriately and on their terms.

Step 8: Create common goal partnerships

Working with like-minded partners, supporters and suppliers smooths the path to achieving your accessibility and inclusion goals. It also gives you more people to celebrate the milestones with.

Need a new website or web redevelopment? Seek a web developer who understands the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Planning an event? Involve suppliers who understand access and inclusion needs and how best to support them.

If you do business with government, partnering with suppliers who deliver accessibility and inclusion benefits is also a strategic choice. Victorian Government departments and agencies prioritise the use of social benefit providers through the Social Procurement Framework.

To be classified as a social benefit supplier an organisation must be a:

Wayne is a man with a beard wearing sunglasses, a straw hat and a fluorescent yellow polo shirt. Beside him is another man in hat and polo short. Both wear Australian Open lanyards.

Social enterprises, such as Travellers Aid, operate to tackle societal problems and build better communities. Partnering with social benefit suppliers not only adheres to government procurement priorities, it also connects you with specific and focused expertise to drive meaningful impact.

“Collaborating with others who have a similar social vision enables all partners to understand and approach challenges with the benefit of collective wisdom and experience, CEO Elias Lebbos says.

“Contributions might be financial, human or infrastructure, but each piece works towards sustainable solutions that open doors and create opportunities to build impact and expand services to more people in more places.”

Yarra Trams Compliance and Accessibility Advisor, Wayne Speers, likens an accessible activity to allowing someone to enjoy a whole, delicious cake.

He says a complete and accessible activity is made up of multiple slices. If one is missing, the experience can’t be fully enjoyed.

“Partnering with like-minded organisations means that gap can be filled. It means the individual can have a complete experience,“ Wayne says.

Take steps towards a more accessible and inclusive community

Creating accessible and inclusive communities is not about ticking off some tasks and calling it job done.

Once you’ve worked through the steps detailed above, celebrate your progress with staff, customers and partners, then turn your attention to areas for improvement.

Give your customers and service users opportunities for feedback so you can learn how you are doing and ways to better meet their needs.

Look for others who are doing accessibility and inclusion well and learn from them. Better still, partner with them.

Recognise that fair and inclusive access is not a one size fits all scenario. Remain open and flexible to individual needs and requests for reasonable adjustments.

There are opportunities to do better in workplaces and schools, public spaces and house design, shops and businesses, events and public transport. If every sector commits to do their bit, the dream of a fairer society will be a step closer to reality.

A busy pedestrian crossing dense with legs. Among them is a person with a white cane and another with a Guide Dog.

There’s no need to go it alone. As an established access and inclusion leader, business and government regularly seek advice and partnership with Travellers Aid. Get in touch and let’s start working together towards a fairer society.